In 1983, three years before I was born, a chilling television docudrama about the consequences of a nuclear war was broadcast around the world. The Day After, now cited as the highest-rated film in TV history, left then-US President Ronald Reagan “greatly depressed” and caused him to rethink his nuclear strategy. At their summit in Reykjavik in October 1986, he and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev came tantalizingly close to eliminating all nuclear weapons.
My generation has conveniently consigned such fears to history. Indeed, with the Cold War tensions of 1983 far in the past and the international order dramatically changed, many people nowadays ask why these memories should concern us at all. But the premise of that question is both wrong and dangerous.
This week, Austria is providing the world an opportunity to rethink its complacency. On December 8-9, representatives from the governments of more than 150 countries, international organizations, and civil-society groups will meet in Vienna, to consider the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons.
These weapons, which terrified people 30 years ago, still remain in countries’ arsenals and continue to pose a grave risk to human security and safety. Austria’s concern is that as long as nuclear weapons exist, the risk of their use exists, either by accident or design. An overwhelming majority of states share this view.
Consider how many nuclear weapons there are: an estimated 16,300 around the world, with 1,800 on high alert and ready for use on short notice. Nearly 25 years after the Cold War’s end, we remain stuck with its strategic legacy: Nuclear weapons continue to underpin the international security policy of the world’s most powerful states.
There are too many risks – human error, technical flaws, negligence, cyber attacks, and more – to believe that these weapons will never be used. Nor is there good reason to believe that adequate fail-safe mechanisms are in place. The history of nuclear weapons since 1945 is studded with near misses – both before and after the Cuban missile crisis.
On more than one occasion, the actions of plucky individuals, applying their intelligence against orders, saved us from catastrophe. For example, in 1983, the Soviet Union’s nuclear early-warning system reported, not once but twice, the launch of US missiles. Fortunately, Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov of the Soviet Air Defense Forces recognized these as false alarms, preventing a mistaken nuclear retaliation.
It is remarkable that the world has avoided disaster thus far. Why continue to push our luck?
Since 2012, when the humanitarian impact initiative was conceived, most countries have stepped up to support it, owing to their anxiety and frustration at the snail-like pace of disarmament. Still, one might legitimately ask whether world leaders shouldn’t first focus their attention on other problems, such as climate change and sustainable development.
In fact, like past generations’ loading of the earth’s atmosphere with carbon, nuclear weapons represent a legacy to overcome. But nuclear weapons, unusable and extremely expensive to maintain, are low-hanging fruit – a risk that we can easily grasp and eliminate.
Enticing the nuclear-weapon states to give up their arsenals will not be easy. As long as some states possess them, other states will be led by envy or fear to desire their own.
But the status quo reflects yesterday’s thinking. Acknowledgement that these Cold War relics are outmoded security tools – indeed, that they cause insecurity – is coming from a diverse range of voices.
Thirty years ago, The Day After galvanized a president. The goal of next week’s Vienna conference is to provide the public with new and updated evidence of the impact of using nuclear weapons. The picture is even grimmer and the consequences more dire than we believed in 1983.
As long as nuclear weapons exist, it is irresponsible not to confront the implications of their use – implications for which there is no antidote or insurance policy. They are not some deadly virus or long-term environmental threat. They are the poisonous fruit of a technology that we created – and that we can and must control.
Published in collaboration with Project Syndicate
Author: Sebastian Kurz is Foreign Minister of Austria and host of the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons.
Image: A woman hands out anti-war decals during an anti-nuclear weapons protest rally and march in New York May 2, 2010. REUTERS/Chip East.